TRUMP AND THE AMERICAN IDEAL

Today is the true first day of the Trump administration.  Up to this time, all that he and his representatives have said has been rendered meaningless by their constant contradictions and weasel words.  Think, for instance, of the promise by Trump that all Americans will be insured for medical care and then his Secretary of Health and Human Services announcing that all Americans would “have access” to medical insurance.  We are thus left to judge them solely by their actions.  All the rhetoric — “America First,” “We will win,” “the government is about you” — now gets its real meaning from their actions.

So how do we judge this administration and the Republican Congress that has espoused it?  I suggest two possibilities.  The first is by its ability to satisfy our own personal wants and needs.  Those who voted for this administration objected to the Affordable Care Act because it cost too much and it did not provide adequate insurance.  They also wanted lower taxes, a more or less constant Republican campaign promise.  They also wanted more job opportunities and higher pay and benefits.

The second possibility for judging this administration is by its effectiveness in promoting the American ideal, which is presented in the Declaration of Independence as the founding notion of our nation:  “We hold these truths to be self-evident:  that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain alienable rights, that among them are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness …”   True enough, the founding fathers excluded, in practice, from “all men” a substantial majority of the population, but the ideal is just that, an ideal, and as such it is clearly meant to cover all human beings.

This second possibility stands in stark contrast to the first.  That possibility asks, in essence, what this administration will do for me.  I want a high-paying job.  I want all-inclusive insurance.  I want to pay less in taxes.  As for you, as long as I get what I want, I will agree to let you have whatever you want.  The measuring stick, however, is me.  This is the so-called morality of self-interest.  I say “so-called” because it is self-contradictory.  Morality is that which I owe to others.  A dedication to self-interest necessarily entails a denial of any such obligation.

The second possibility — the American ideal — has often been misinterpreted as a commitment to my own personal liberty.  It is mistakenly seen as an announcement that I can do whatever I want, with the tacit correlative that the best way to get what I want is usually to not violate the liberty of others.   Freedom, in other words, is defined as license, and that definition perverts the entire meaning of the American ideal.  To measure the rights of others by whether or not they serve your own is, at base, a complete denial of the American ideal.

That ideal is a bold and brave and earth-shaking commitment to respect and serve the rights of every human being.  Not just those of my race or my locale or my social or economic status or my religion, but every human being on the planet.  That colossal ideal is what brought the poor and the hungry and the oppressed of the world to these shores:  the knowledge that they would be freed of the chains forced upon them by their birth or their beliefs.  It is the inspiration for those words that stirred us long ago:  “Ask not what your country can do for you.  Ask what you can do for your country.”

Self-interest is not an ideal.  It is, in fact, the denial of all ideals.  The primacy of self-interest is the root of all conflict.  It is the mother of injustice.  It is the breeding ground of war.  It is the very antithesis of the American ideal.

If, then, we are truly Americans, we should, we must, measure the actions of those presently in power by whether they foster a world that respects all human beings or whether they operate on a fundamental policy of self-interest.  If self-interest prevails, the founding notion of America will fall from an ideal to a mere advertising campaign.

 

 

 

NEW HOPE FOR HEALTH CARE

At the very beginning of the Obama administration, in fact on the evening of his inauguration, the Republican leaders got together and decided that the best way for them to deal with the new president was to oppose absolutely everything he did.  So thorough going was their commitment to this approach that, when the new president endorsed a bill proposed by the Republicans, those very Republicans voted their own bill down.  That was a stupid, selfish, purely political policy, and it deeply wounded the American people and wasted eight years of what could have been an astounding advance in the peace and progress of this nation.

It would, therefore, be just as repugnant to take the same approach to the new Republican administration and Congress.  We need, rather, to rationally analyze the Republican proposals and endorse or oppose them on the merits.

The first act of the new Republican leaders is to announce that they will repeal the Affordable Care Act and replace it with a health care program that will solve the failings that these leaders see in that act.  It was never quite clear what those failings were, but the Republicans have listed them for us.  We should hail them for announcing what those failures are and for promising to fix them.

First, the Republican leaders, most notably Vice-President-elect Michael Pence, Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell and House majority leader Paul Ryan, have announced that the premiums for insurance under the Affordable Care Act are too high.  We should, therefore, eagerly await a reduction in insurance premiums under Republican leadership.

Second, Republican leaders have announced that deductibles in the Affordable Care Act are too high.  We should, therefore, look forward to reduced deductibles along with reduced premiums.

Third, Republican leaders have pointed out that the Affordable Care Act did not allow the insureds to pick their own doctor or pick their own insurer.  We should be comforted by the fact that, under the new Republican leadership, we will be able to do both.

Finally, Republican leaders have complained that the Affordable Care Act did not accomplish its goal of providing insurance for everyone in America.  This is the heart of the matter, since, for various reasons, accomplishing universal health care will result in enormous savings both in the delivery of health care and in the administration of health insurance.  This will be a truly great accomplishment by the Republican administration, and it would show that the Republican leadership cares more about the needs of the people than it does about political power.

If these things are accomplished by the new Republican leadership, we should all congratulate them on their dedication to the American people.  They have the reins now, and they have made clear what they want to accomplish for us.  We will hold them to these promises, and we will give them every bit of recognition they deserve for what they accomplish.

OPEN LETTER TO RACHEL MADDOW

Dear Ms. Maddow,

I have watched and enjoyed your show for some time now.  You obviously work very hard at it, and you just as obviously have a deep and passionate commitment to the point of view that you present.  I am a well-educated and liberal professional, and your point of view almost always accords with my own.  Thank you for all of that.

Now I have a request:  stop it.  Stop being the anti-Fox.  Stop the ridicule and the demeaning and the contempt for those whose views differ from yours (and mine).  Stop laughing in the face of those with opposite views.  Stop the Olympian pronouncements, the haughty demeaning of those who see the world in an altogether different light.

Why?  Because, I put it to you, that approach is pretty much what brought us Trump.  You are scoffing at, laughing at, hurling insults at the views of the sixty million people who voted for Trump.  And they hear you, and they don’t like it, and, far, far more importantly, they don’t deserve it.

Those sixty million, and likely many more, live in a country that has failed them, ignored them.  They have listened for years to you and yours promote the interests of the poor, the uninsured, the oppressed.  They have heard you so vigorously defend African-Americans and Hispanics and Asians and gays and lesbians and bisexuals and transgenders and other minorities.  They have closely inspected your list of the needy, and they have found that they, and they alone, are missing from your list.  And they, rightly or wrongly but in either case quite logically, conclude that it is them at whom you are laughing.

I don’t lay this blame at your feet alone.  Note that I said I have watched and enjoyed your show.  We liberals have this annoying habit of pontificating, of making paternalistic dictates about how the world should be run.  We moralize from our lofty perch, make Solomonic fiats about health care and environment and discrimination.  And all the while we ignore the poor schlep who is just barely making it and for whom even a modest setback is a disaster.  That poor schlep heard, and felt deeply, your ridicule and your scorn, and he took his resentment of you to the polling place.  Ergo Trump.

Yes, I know that, hiding behind these sixty million good people are a bunch of self-serving, greedy vultures who would parlay the grievances of the sixty million into great profit to themselves, all likely at the cost of the rights and interests of those very same sixty million.  No doubt Trump sees his victory as a chance to pull a Putin, to turn American political power into a gigantic fortune for himself.  Trump and his ilk deserve every bit of derision that you have heaped on him.  But the guy in Oshkosh, with the wife and three kids and a mortgage and credit card debt that makes even hamburger a treat — that guy and his wife and his children do not deserve that derision and that scorn.  They deserve the praise merited by their survival and their plowing on through every economic downturn and every illness and every need of their children for food and clothing and education that makes them wonder how they will get to the next paycheck.

You and I need some humility about this.  We know a lot of stuff.  We know fancy terms like “casus belli” and “the emolument clause.”  We have read Gibbon and Manchester and Friedman.  We can speak the language of Wall Street.  We have walked Harvard Square.  We have so, so many charming and witty friends.  And we have swigged the Koolaid that we are a breed apart, brilliant and apart and pretty much all-knowing.  That vanity has taken us away from the American ideal every bit as much as Trump’s narcissism has taken him.  We need to go sit at the table of the West Virginia coal miner who, albeit dying of black lung, vows that he would do it again if that is what it takes to protect and provide for his family.  We need to go listen to the folks at the Waukesha Republican party meeting who, good and decent as they are, praise the work of Ryan and Walker and Sensenbrenner, and we need to understand why they praise them.

Most of all, we need to stop laughing at these good folk.  They are our brothers and our sisters.  We need to be a part of them.  We need to listen to them, ask their advice, accede to their wishes where we can and urge our own wishes, respectfully and understandingly, on them.  We are a union, a union paid for in much blood.  We ignore and belittle the sixty million at the risk of losing that union.  If we are to promote our views, we can only succeed by bringing those sixty million along, or perhaps better said, by promoting views that accommodate and honor those sixty million.

So, in the words of our amazing president, cut it out.  Stop laughing.  Start listening.  Start showing that you understand the views of that coal miner, that guy in Oshkosh, those nice people in Waukesha.  Then, when Perry wrecks energy, when DeVos wrecks public schools, when the policies of the Trump presidency give the lie to all the promises he made to the sixty million, you can speak about facts, and you can speak respectfully to the sixty million.  And they will listen.

Seriously, thanks for all the hard work and passion you bring to us.  I hope my little observations make that hard work and passion even more effective.

Respectfully

 

Michael Gillick

 

 

THE AMERICAN VENEER

Nature abhors a vacuum, or so Aristotle taught us.  That may not be true as a physics theorem, but it is certainly true of the history of human affairs.  It was a vacuum of leadership that allowed the great monsters of our time, Hitler and Stalin and others, to gain power and work their epic evils.

One of the great mysteries about these historical nightmares is why the people under the rule of these monsters did not rebel and throw them over.  Even Hitler, with his carefully crafted programs of propaganda and repression, had relatively few enforcers under his command compared to the population as a whole, and that population was one of the most highly educated and intelligent peoples in the world.

The answer to that question has, no doubt, many layers, and people far more informed than I have no doubt explored the answer at a level far beyond my abilities.  Whatever that answer may be, the phenomenon itself is a perfect illustration of the venerable adage, attributed to C.P. Snow and others, that the veneer of civilization is exceedingly thin.  Over and over, in literature and in photographs and now daily on social media, we see descriptions and pictures of people who, while presumably also peace-loving parents and children, spew out mindless hatred and bigotry.  I have in mind, as I write these words, those gruesome photos and films of ordinary citizens cursing Jewish men, women and children as they are ripped from their homes and led to unspeakable torture and death.  I have also in mind the smiling faces of white men and women standing under the bodies of black men strung from trees.  Those people no doubt went home and ate dinner, and they got up on Sunday and went to church, and they went home and hugged their children and tucked them neatly in bed.

Whatever else it was that drove these people to accommodate these hideous deeds into their otherwise civilized lives, one conclusion must be drawn:  that whatever they had identified in their lives as of value was, at base, vacuous, empty, meaningless.  Nothing identified as a true, meaningful value could ever have allowed these nightmarish occurrences, and yet there can be no denying that they did indeed occur.  Whatever God they worshiped, whatever cultural practices they followed, whatever family values they espoused — all of that was sufficiently specious to allow them to engage in activities so monstrous that, if called savage, would be an insult to the word “savage” itself.

Recently a dear and wise friend suggested that the recent political discussions made him conclude that it was within the realm of possibilities for American citizens to engage in some event comparable to Kristallnacht.  That night, in November, 1938, a horde of German and Austrian citizens smashed Jewish businesses and places of worship and beat and killed scores of Jewish people who were themselves German citizens.  That brutality set the scene for hundreds of thousand of Jews to be sent to concentration camps, and ultimately to the massacre of millions of innocents.

I initially scoffed at my friend’s observation, but then I put it before myself as I listened to the most recent debate in the race for a Republican candidate for President.  I watched Donald Trump insisting over and over that we must uproot millions of undocumented aliens from their homes.  I heard Jeb Bush denounce Trump’s suggestion on the grounds that it was “not possible.”  Oh, I thought, but what if it were?  Would you do it then?  Because, with just a small change in policy, it would be possible.

I know you are thinking that all of that is ridiculous.  This is, after all, America.  But here is the problem:  do we know what it really means to be an American?  In theory it means that we endorse the principles that all human beings are created equal and that every human being is endowed by his or her creator with certain inalienable rights.  In practice, however, I am hearing more and more that to be an American is far different from that, and, to my mind, far less than that.

I put it to my dear reader that there is, in America, a growing dearth of ideals, and that dearth is edging toward a vacuum.  Our policies are far more often guided by more parochial, more economic, more self-centered goals than Jefferson’s earth-shaking definition of the American ideal.  When political positions are assumed not on those ideals but on the size of your wallet or the color of your skin, the veneer of your civilization threatens to become diaphanously thin.  If it does, it takes only some relatively trivial event to tip your world into a nightmare akin to Kristallnacht.

I hope and pray that my dear wise friend is wrong.  I fear that he is not.

BULLMOOSE LOGIC

Everything has a logic, even illogic. Logic, after all, is only the art of laying out the consequences of any given set of first principles. It might make no sense to you that a person with a wonderful family and a great job would lose that job and family by drinking himself homeless. If, however, you assume the first principle of alcoholism — I want to do whatever it takes to get drunk — then losing your job and family is perfectly logical, i.e., it necessarily follows from that first principle. Likewise, getting up at five every morning and running twenty miles is my idea of utter insanity, but it is perfectly logical for someone who wants to win the Boston Marathon. It follows, then (quite logically, I might add), that, if you wish to understand the arguments or conduct of someone, you need first to identify that person’s first principle, and that will make sense of what follows.

Therein lies a huge problem for Republicans. Why is it, I ask myself, that Republicans rise to power and then almost immediately set to antagonizing the electorate by making life miserable for the average person? And how is it possible to make sense of arguments made by Republicans on behalf of programs that are clearly antithetical to the common interest? How make sense of vigorous arguments against protecting the environment, providing health care to all at a reasonable price, providing a living wage to the lowest earnings levels? How is it possible to argue that the correct policy in good times and bad is to lower taxes on the wealthy? What sense is there to demanding cuts to education for those unable to afford private schooling and increasing subsidies to those who can? How can you logically decry our treatment of disabled veterans and at the same time cut funding for their treatment? And how, in the name of all that is reasonable, can you argue on every imaginable plane that we should deny the factual findings of the sciences?

All of this makes perfect sense only if you identify the first principle of those who control the Republican party. Nobody said it better than Al Capp: what’s good for General Bullmoose is good for the country. What serves the interests of the wealthy serves the interests of the entire country. You may assign whatever motives you wish to the adoption of that particular first principle. Maybe the Republican power brokers genuinely feel that concentrating wealth and power in the hands of a few is the best way to govern a nation. They would not be the first to think so. The list of historical oligarchies is far longer than that of genuine democracies. On the other hand, you may feel that the Republican power brokers are simply paying back those who provide them with the funds to stay in office. Whatever the motivation, the principle is quite clear, and, once you set that principle in place, all the rest makes perfect sense. For instance, why would you argue that running an oil pipeline down the middle of the country the provides scant jobs and that does nothing for energy conservation in America is good for the American people? Let’s say it together: BECAUSE IT’S GOOD FOR GENERAL BULLMOOSE, AND WHAT IS GOOD FOR GENERAL BULLMOOSE IS GOOD FOR THE COUNTRY.

That analysis will help you understand all the rest. You challenge science because the findings of science conflict with the interests of the wealthy. You reduce health care, education, veterans’ benefits, increases in the minimum wage because these things conflict with the interests of the wealthy. This, of course, assumes that the interests of the wealthy may comfortably be reduced to wanting more wealth, and those with wealth cannot fairly all be tarred with the same brush. Warren Buffett and Bill Gates have both decried the increased concentration of wealth in the hands of a few, and they have both dedicated a massive percentage of their wealth to the improvement of the lot of the less advantaged among us. The Koch brothers, on the other hand, sadly personify a far-too-substantial portion of the wealthy for which the only value lies in increasing their financial holdings.

To answer, then, the question with which I started. The Republican reliance on Bullmoose logic requires them to get creative in convincing the people that Republican politicians will serve the interests of the people. Once in power, however, they must serve those who put them there, and inevitably that must end in damaging the interests of the general public. You cannot promote policies that increase poverty and igorance, decrease a healthy environment and access to medical care, etc., and continue to enjoy the adulation of the masses. Absent restricting the voice of those masses, you will, having revealed your true colors by your actions, be summarily thrown out.

I am not saying here that the Republicans will be routed in 2016. They may succeed in somehow silencing the disadvantaged majority. They may succeed in restricting the vote or starting another war or some other tactic. What I am saying is that a program of action built on advantaging only a few is intrinsically doomed to fail. Eventually the people catch on, and eventually the people overthrow that oligarchy. They did it in Russia. They are doing it in China. Soon or late, they will do it to the Republicans.

General Bullmoose, take heed.

BY THEIR DEEDS YOU SHALL KNOW THEM

The Republican election victory was complete, and the reasons why they were so successful are officially irrelevant. The Republicans have a majority in both houses of Congress, and Republicans have majorities in both houses of the majority of states, along with Republican governors.
What is also irrelevant is the list of issues on which they ran. All the talk about getting tough on crime and being committed to family and even creating more jobs was just talk. Legislatures and governors either do not or cannot do anything about these issues anyway.
So the hot question is: what are all these Republican administrations going to do? The things they can do are fairly limited. They could try, as they had often claimed they would, to repeal the Affordable Care Act. If they do, millions of people will lose health care coverage, and we will return to the ever-spiraling health care costs, and they will likely all get tossed out of office in 2016. They could also try, as they also claimed they would, to throw every undocumented alien out of the country and seal our borders up tight. If they do that, they will also be summarily dismissed in ’16.
They will, of course, do neither, and even if they try they won’t succeed because the president will veto their efforts, and the democratic senators will use the Republicans’ favorite tactic of one-person filibuster (Republicans have used that a mind-boggling 458 times in the first six years of the Obama administration) to stop them.
They could also work to balance the budget, reduce the deficit, use federal funds to create significant employment for those at the lower levels of the economic ladder, and design a program of health care that will provide health care to all at a reasonable cost. If they do all these things, I, and presumably everyone I know, will join the Republican party, and the Democrats will be left to represent burnt out hippies and utopian socialists.
Or, they could carry on with politics as usual and pay off the moneyed interests who made their sweeping victory possible by passing a tax bill that will provide those monied interests with even less taxation than the historically low tax burden they now have. The Koch brothers did not shell out three hundred million dollars to close the borders. They expect, and will demand, a handsome return on their investment.
The problem is that they cannot actually tell the electorate what they are up to. Indeed, they have already begun to develop a plausible cover story. The otherwise lightweight Paul Ryan of Wisconsin spent his virtually unopposed election effort telling the people of Wisconsin that the IRS are a bunch of thugs and that they tax code is is outrageously unfair. He gives no specifics, and that is because, I would guess, he has been instructed to be very careful not to. If the victorious Republicans are to pull this legerdemain off, they are going to have to pull off the misdirection play of the century. They will have to convince an electorate already suffering from an income inequality not seen in America since the 19th century that making it even worse is a good idea. Or, more likely, they are going to have to disguise that outcome in some package filled with righteous rage at the damage being done to that same electorate by a present system already egregiously imbalanced in favor of the moneyed interests.
They have the reins, and they have the options. The campaign rhetoric is over, and the post-election rhetoric has already begun. My recommendation: buy earplugs. By their deeds we will know them. I have a feeling I won’t be joining the GOP anytime soon.

MORE

In his book, A Theory of Justice, John Rawls asks the question: what do people want? His answer was: more. I have, over the past several years, come to a deeper appreciation of this observation. It may profitably be used as a standard by which to measure what is going on at the moment in American politics.
A few days ago, Americans across the country overwhelmingly voted in the Republican candidates for federal, state and local offices. Republican political leaders immediately and vocally concluded that the people have identified themselves with the goals of Republican politicians. At the same time, however, those same Americans voted in various referenda — raising the minimum wage, legalizing marijuana, etc. — in a direction that Republicans traditionally oppose.
This apparent schizophrenia has happened repeatedly in the past. Voters have overwhelmingly leaned in one or the other political direction, only to completely reverse themselves in the very next election. The only possible explanation for that seemingly fickle behavior is that the defining interests of the electorate are only coincidentally aligned with one party or the other. Rather than any monolithic orientation, what is going on is that there is an amalgam of groups, each with their own interests, and they align only if one group sees its own interests more likely achieved by promoting some other group.
It strikes me that one may untangle these fleeting alliances by using Rawls’ observtion to correctly identifying why the alliances take place. So, start with politicians. What is the more that they want? More years in office. They want to get re-elected. Why? Damned if I know, but the pay is good, the adulation is enjoyable, and it’s an exciting game. I don’t discount the altruistic motive of wanting to help one’s fellow citizens, but I suspect that motive is not the one that adequately defines politicians as a group.
What, then, do the moneyed interests that, particularly since Citizens United, feeds the politicans’ drive for re-elections, what do they want? Well, more money. Yes, the conservative money promotes specific conservative causes — banning abortion, promoting religion in schools, etc. But do you really think that the Koch brothers spent three hundred million dollars for prayer in school. No, it was a sound investment. So long as the moneyed interests can keep taxes on the wealth at their current all-time low, they will support anyone and anything that doesn’t tip over that apple cart. When they tell you it’s not about the money, …
That leaves us with the real mystery. What is the more that the electorate wants? Clearly there is no such thing as a singly-directed electorate. The people are, themselves, an amalgam of interests. I think it safe to say, however, that there are some common strains among them. The American people want more ease in making it through life. They want more jobs, more net income, more access to health care, more safety and security and more opportunities for their families and children.
How, then, does it happen that the interests of the electorate aligned with those of Republican politicians? I don’t know how, but I’ll take one guess. It was a negative vote. The electorate looked at the deadlock in national politics, and it decided that the fault lay with the Democrats. That is, in my opinion, an amazingly inaccurate conclusion. The Republican flagbearer in the past six years, Mitch McConnell, made it his single focus to obstruct absolutely everything and anything President Obama tried to propose, which fully justified characterizing the Republican party as the party of no. In this realm, however, as in so many others, appearance is reality, and, however they did it, the Republicans sold that package to the people.
To those, then, who would interpret Tuesday’s landslide Republicn victory as a watershed change in the direction of the country, I recommend that they read a bit of history. The people want more, and it isn’t your more, and, if you don’t give them their more, 2016 is going to be a very interesting time.